Saoirse’s Cult Corner #1, What Have You Done To Solange?

In this column cult columnist, Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big budget flop, with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This week we talk about the 1972 Giallo, ‘What Have You Done To Solange?

Content warning; this film & review touches on issues relating to back street abortions.

What Have You Done To Solange?’, is a 1972 Giallo film directed by Massimo Dallamano, who’s 2nd biggest contribution to the genre is ‘74’s, ‘What Have They Done To Your Daughters?’, an equally grim & downbeat Poliziotteschi that together formed Dallamano’s entries in the ‘Schoolgirls in Peril’ trilogy. 

Before transitioning to directing, Dallamano served as cinematographer for Sergio Leone on his hyper-violent westerns ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ & ‘For A Few Dollars More’. It was here he found his distinct visual style which makes use of lyrical atmosphere, moody lighting, and wide lenses that distort reality and make our characters feel entrapped. 

His last film before Solange was, interestingly, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’, which drew controversy for its sexploitation elements, but others hailed it as a landmark text of the 60s and 70s sexual liberation movement. This makes both ‘Solange’ & ‘Daughters’ interesting cases, not just in Dallamano’s canon but in the context of Giallo as a genre. Many Giallo filmmakers, Argento himself included, were part of the political turmoil in Italy in the 70s, rebelling against authority in a post-fascist world. It is interesting then, the suspect look at young freedom in the 60s and 70s that ‘What Have You Done To Solange?’ takes. The title is a question posed to the victims of the murders, who have done something terrible that is coming back to bite them, and that terrible thing has a lot to do with being young & sexually free. The film has an abortion subplot that leads to tragedy, and whether or not the film condones abortion or not isn’t really clear. The abortion is back street, so it could be read that the film takes the stance of many, that if abortion isn’t legal & accepted then people are only going to go to dangerous ends to get them. What it seems is more likely is that the film is just one protracted scream into the void, as many of us feel in divided times & desperate political climates, ‘how, oh how, has it come to this?’. The film doesn’t really blame the girls at all, but the fact that them having this freedom has led to society punishing them is just, tragic. The film is a feel-bad movie in the best of ways where there’s no real moral to take away from this, it’s just quite sad. 

Whereas classically in both Giallo and slashers, there is joy taken in murder, in the shock, there is a Joi de Vivre of brutality, here there’s a distinct sombreness. The brutality doesn’t feel like you’re excitedly challenged, it feels like what’s happening is just, really, really tragic. In fact, the film itself is far less interested in the central mystery, but more the lives that are ruined in the process. Even compared to the debate around ‘Dorian Gray’ While there is nudity here, even during the murder scenes it never really feels leery, (until we have a point of view shot from a peeping tom to set up a possible suspect). During the murders the naked bodies are treated objectively, never focussing on erotic areas of the body, it’s just sheer terror & the nudity is part of that, provoking a sense of ultimate vulnerability. Even during the voyeur shots the film shies away from fetishisation. 

Part of its grimdark, accepting tone, lies in the fact it’s based off a novel by Edgar Wallace, a writer primarily known as the man behind ‘King Kong’. As a Wallace novel, (the plot of which has little bearing on the finished film), the air that the film conveys, is much more one of classical noir than typical Giallo. The man himself joined The Liberal Party in the 30s, which at the time rejected national government. This taps into something very key about understanding Giallo. In order for these killers to run around and murder people, there has to therefor be an ineffective law enforcement not stopping then. When Giallo first came about it was in the fallout of fascist Italy, and as opposed to Italian Neo-Realism, which sought to render the horrors of suppressed Italy in grounded, simple stories shot cheaply on the streets, Giallo rendered the violence of the state in hammer horror style, gaudy red blood, splattered on the floor. In ‘Solange’ though, there’s not a whole lot of blood, just brutal imagery of the aftermath of violence. This almost seems like a reaction against the early Argento thrillers like ‘Four Flies On Grey Velvet’, and ‘Deep Red’, which bought such style and inventive ways of shooting to the murders, as well as comedy. On-set anecdotes describe Argento as ducking and diving around the actors and camera as if he himself was dancing when blocking a murder scene, the murderers in which he would often play himself. By contrast, the deaths here are some of the most violent in all of Giallo, but are hardly shown. Dallamano said he wanted to exaggerate the tropes of Giallo to parody levels with this film, but it comes out the other side of pastiche of violence to just being really, really dark. The phallic penetration of most Giallo murders taken to quite literal, grimy conclusions. 

In terms of the films’ cynicism to government, the police are shown to be hard-working, intelligent, and thorough, but at the same time they never really get anywhere. In Giallo it is often the lone, implicated civilian who solves the murder, and the same is true here, the police try their hardest but no one is really saved, and when people are, the event feels hollow and meaningless, undercut by further tragedy. The film itself ends in violence, but not cathartic violence, in sad pathetic failure to enact justice through the legal system. 

What Have You Done To Solange?‘ Is an interesting one to do as the first instalment of this feature. Not only is it not made by one of what I call the ‘Big Five Giallo Directors’, (that being Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, and Umberto Lenzi), but it is tonally very different to most Giallo. Part of appreciating it comes from an understanding of the kind of thing it’s not doing. 

The film itself, like most Giallo, is beautifully framed. The film contains some of the most beautiful black and white photography I’ve seen for a very, very long time. Part of this is down to the fact that the film stock going around Italy in the 70s was some of the best we’ve ever had the privilege in the film industry to use. On its original run in Italy, it was blown up to 70mm is some territories, not most Giallo don’t have this glossy widescreen production. This film also utilises abstractions of colour better than any other Giallo bar ‘Suspiria’ or ‘The New York Ripper’. The Ennio Morricone score is one of the best that he’s ever written, preempting contemporary trends in horror music in very interesting ways, but also feeling often woozy, dreamy, and uneasy in subtle ways. The main theme that’s used in all the promotional material is one of his most achingly beautiful pieces of music.
Finally, going into ‘What Have You Done To Solange?’, whilst the titular Solange is important to the story, it is important to remember going in that, like most Giallo, the thing featuring in the title really doesn’t get mentioned until very, very near the end. ‘What Have You Done To Solange?’ is clearly incredibly influential on cult filmmakers throughout history, get whiffs of Takashi Miike’s ‘Audition’, David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’, and Brain DePalma’s ‘Sisters’. That being said it is definitely not where you should probably start with Giallo, but if you’re like me, and you’ve seen far, far too many, this will definitely make a high quality, refreshing change.

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